The success of Telltale’s Walking Dead games doesn’t rest squarely on the comic branding, nor did gamers go crazy about the first five episodes because of a loose tethering to the AMC show hanging in their mind.
Telltale’s Walking Dead was its own monster; a licensed game that carved its own path deep into gamers’ psyches by forcing us to shed the voyeuristic barrier of comfort that comes in merely watching these characters suffer by putting us right beside them, by making us choose their fates, usually within no more than a moment. Hard choices are nothing new this generation; Bioware solidified that idea through the mainstream success of their Mass Effect games. But whereas Sheperd’s dilemmas were often clearly laid out in black and white (or red and blue), The Walking Dead demanded you navigate its conversation webs with your own moral compass.
What was truly gut-wrenching about the game – besides the unfeeling corpses endlessly shuffling toward you – was seeing the good intentioned, well thought out decisions you made blow up in your fucking face. Where a gentle accusation could fracture trust in your group. Where helping one person could mean hurting another.
400 Days doesn’t have the same luxury of building its characters up like the first half of a Stephen King novel (only to knock them down in tragic fashion like the second half of a King novel). But because it doesn’t have five episodes to spill across, 400 Days narrows its focus and hits a vital organ with every blow it lands.
The DLC follows five separate survivors, each given a vignette showcasing a critical point for them, scattered throughout the first year of the outbreak. No single vignette could have been longer than thirty minutes, which makes it doubly impressive how quickly Telltale is able to convey depth of character with its new cast.
The formula behind the chapters play out the same: we’re introduced to a hapless character – like the newly convicted Vince spending his last moments on the outside from within a prison transport, or Bonnie, a recovering drug addict that’s had to go cold turkey because of the imminent apocalypse – then they’re faced with an impossible choice. 400 Days refuses to butter you up, either. You’ll be staring down a life or death situation typically minutes after you pick a chapter to play; whether it’s your life or another’s resting in your sweaty palms. Once again, the looming threat of a bite incurred death is second fiddle to the intense drama our “heroes” deal with – the strongest symptom present in all great zombie fiction.
My gripes with 400 Days start with my frustration of getting this obvious “backdoor pilot” to Season Two rather than hunkering down on Season Two itself. Despite tense, hair raising segments – like darting through a cornfield, avoiding the blinding flashlight beams of your pursuers while a storm pelts from overhead – the vignettes don’t tie into each other very well, instead settling for tossing our cast together in a hackneyed epilogue where you have characters going on about unseen events that would’ve been much more satisfying to see first hand (“Remember when so-and-so died?" No! Not at all! Show me, goddamnit!). If less characters meant more time with the ones left, the experience might not have felt so brief.
Also, if you took issue with the suspicious lack of "game” in The Walking Dead Game, this DLC won’t assuage your woes. Telltale’s vision has always been narrative first; as such, you’ll have this unique feeling you’re watching a film broken up by spurts of gameplay. Any game with a lesser story could never get away with it, but even compacted into bite-sized helpings, idle hands can be forgiven when the trade-up is superb storytelling.
Fans of Season One are sure to eat 400 Days up like a horse that dumbly stumbled onto the middle of a deserted Atlanta street, but don’t expect to stay full for long. It’s brief, sweet, and leaves you wanting way more than $4.99 can feed you. Still, as a novella before the novel, 400 Days packs five painful punches worth having connect.
Developer: Telltale Games
Platforms: Mac/PC/PSN [Reviewed]/PS Vita/XBLA
Technical Bugs: Playing the PS3 version, I also still experienced those janky lags whenever the game saved a choice (or when the action went from 0 to 30 too quickly) that plagued Season One. Minor problems that affect the presentation, not the substance.